Tom Arnold Says a Million Bucks Couldn't Build a Canteen Lunch in the Alley

An Ottumwa, IA Historic Landmark by Jody Bresch

The question any of us who have ever had one wants to know is, "How do you make a homemade Canteen?" For those of you who don't know, a Canteen is a loose meat sandwich, already world famous before Roseanne and Tom Arnold attempted to cash in on this proven gravy train and make a few million dollars or more back in the 90's. There are at least two stories circulating about the origins of Ottumwa, Iowa's Canteen Lunch in the Alley. One says that it originated at another location in 1927 with only 5 soda fountain stools sitting at a narrow counter.

Rose Palm, a former employee of the Canteen, who worked there in the 50's, denies there was ever another location for the historic restaurant, however. She insists it was opened in 1936 at its current location at 112 East Second Street. She said the ground beef steamer was 4 times the size it is now, and the horseshoe shaped counter circled by 16 stools was only about 10 inches wide because that's all there was room for. The original restaurant had no inside walls, and did not until the U.S.D.A set up a few rules and regulations the Canteen did not comply with. At that time, the Canteen underwent a remodel. Dark walnut paneling was put up, and a wall for a back storage room was installed. A new wider counter replaced the 10 inch one, and the new ground beef steamer was a fourth the size of the original one.

Except for regularly applied elbow grease, the Canteen hasn't changed much since then, even when the town of Ottumwa decided to put up a two story parking lot where it was located. After a huge to-do that anybody had the audacity to talk about taking the Canteen down or moving it, a compromise was reached, and the parking lot went up over and around it.

That question again, was, "How do you make a homemade Canteen?" and I received a multitude of answers: Ellen Allen Carlo-McKeel said it requires chicken broth, heat, salt and pepper, and oh…the meat, Cathy Adams Coker said to brown l lb. 80/20 hamburger, add 1/2 tsp salt, 3-4 dashes of pepper, 1 T onion powder, 1 generous squeeze of yellow mustard (1/4 cup for 3 lbs hamb), 2/3 canned beef broth, brown the ground beef, drain grease, add seasonings and the broth...cooking until broth is reduced, and there it is...this is the recipe from when we were young when my aunt worked at the canteen...50 years ago..., and Judy Whitmore said, "I also use bullion, and some cream of chicken soup." However, Tom Arnold said, "This cannot be done. In 1992 we (Roseanne and Tom) spent 2 million dollars trying to recreate an Ottumwa Canteen. Bought some land and built a nice restaurant in Eldon. The best equipment. An excellent staff. We'd copied aspects of Ottumwa on "Roseanne" for years including a loose meat restaurant and I've eaten 1000's of Canteens for research."

The restaurant Tom is referring to created a big splash in Eldon, Iowa for a short period of time, but it was a spin-off copy, and not an original, and anybody who's ever had a Canteen knew it. Tom went on, "We were about to expand and partner with Planet Hollywood and buy 175 bankrupt Steak and Ale's around the country. The restaurants were designed and very cool. We even had a deal with Carol the fabulous "Pie Lady" All the rest of our food was top notch. The Big Food Diners had amazing Hollywood memorabilia and an original funky look. It was going to be a home run. Easy money." Tom and Roseanne thought they had a full-proof plan that couldn't lose. However, while customers thought the Eldon Restaurant was good Tom and Roseanne were about to take a giant tumble with their supposedly sure-fire business venture.

Tom quickly admits, "One problem though. Our loose meat sandwiches were not as good as The Canteen's even though we used the exact same meat, water and bread. That was a deal breaker because that was the whole point so we packed up shop and donated everything to Indian Hills." One has to admire their honesty and integrity when Roseanne and Tom decided to fold up and close shop on this multi-million dollar project they'd already invested huge chunks of money in.

However, Tom had to confess, their product never measured up. "There was just something about The Canteen that could not be duplicated outside the dingy walls of that tiny little place. Was it the old greasy steamer the ladies "stirred" the meat in? Or was it the ladies themselves? Some had been there for over 30 years and they weren't talking. They'd just smile and stir and say "reorder everything but pickle?" It was MAGIC … and millions of dollars can't buy you that magic but I think you can still get 3 perfect "everything but pickle" for about 10 bucks at that strange out of place little brick building on the alley."

Tom can still grin about it all. "Last Thanksgiving. Last stop on the way out of town. Told my wife I had to stop there because they expected me," Tom added, "and they did. I've never not stopped at The Canteen when I'm back home." But this time, Tom stopped anyway.

Everybody does! If you're here for a family reunion, a class reunion, a business deal, a birth or a funeral, one thing on your to-do list when you hit Ottumwa, IA is a trip to that Canteen Restaurant in the Alley. It can't be duplicated for several million bucks.

By Jody


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